Friday, November 13, 2009

Chekhov and The Inner Life

Chekhov said in one of his letters, "there's no making out anything in this world" and a little later in one of his stories—About Love (1898)—has one of his characters elaborate on that idea: "So far only one incontestable truth has been stated about love: 'This is a great mystery': everything else that has been written or said about love is not a solution, but only a statement of questions that have remained unanswered. The explanation that would fit one case does not apply to a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case separately without attempting to generalize. Each case should be individualized, as the doctors say." A year later, in 1899, Dr. Chekhov offers us just such a case, in one of his greatest stories, "The Lady With The Dog," and at one point comes pretty close to violating his cardinal rule about not attempting to generalize.

A rake, Dimitry Dmitrich Gurov, meets a younger woman, Anna Sergeyevna von Dideritz at the resort town of Yalta, and seduces her as he has seduced many others—though he knows that this affair, like all the others, will end badly: "Oft repeated and really bitter experience had taught him long ago that with decent people . . . who are irresolute and slow to move, every affair which at first seems a light and charming adventure inevitably grows into a whole extreme complexity, and in the end a painful situation is created. But at every new meeting with an interesting woman this lesson of experience seemed to slip from his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed to so simple and diverting."

And so it proves. But this time something new happens: for the first time in his life, Gurov falls
in love—and gets a life, a genuine life, but not a life that he can publicly acknowledge. As his real life goes underground, he has the following revelation: "He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth—for instance his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his "inferior race" [which is how he had habitually referred to women], his attending official celebrations with his wife—all that was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and very interesting life under cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night. Every personal existence was upheld by a secret, and it was perhaps partly for this reason every cultivated man took such anxious care that his personal secret should be respected."

As that last sentence would seem to indicate, Chekhov himself was powerfully drawn to this vision of a secret, authentic inner life—of sincerity, truth, honesty—concealed as if by a theatrical shell from the 'real' word of conventional truths and conventional falsehoods—as if the social world were a theater in which we all act our parts while our real lives go on out of sight, off-stage, behind the scenes. (Chekhov found it much more difficult and, he said, less rewarding to write plays than stories.) And indeed it would be hard to exaggerate the power of this idea or myth—one of the formative myths of modernity as well as romanticism, as it seems to me—or its tenacity: if the inner life is the authentic core of our being, where we feel "sincerely", how can we account for the well-known fact that it is just as easy—maybe easier—to deceive our selves as others? (Isn't that what Gurov is doing? Is he not, as an adulterer, living a lie? Tolstoy would certainly have thought so.)

This is a huge subject. So far as I know, its history has yet to be written. Were I to begin writing such a history, I think I'd start with the authoritative use of the first-person pronoun in the poetry of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was Keats who said he believed in the holiness of the heart's affections and the truth of the imagination.

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